By Allen Ginsberg
Reading Level: 9th grade
Interest Level: 9th-12th grade +
Teaser: Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl is one of the most banned poems in the history of literature.
Summary: Ginsberg’s poetry is a frantic, hazy, collection that follows his day-to-day life with people who are his friends, peers, and mentors. The title poem, “Howl,” focuses in on his escapades with drugs and alcohol with his fellow poets and writers. The poem acts as a exclamation of love for life, even the dark, gritty parts that expose Ginsberg. He writes about the real human experience, including his homosexuality, which at the time was largely unacceptable.
Information about the Poet: According to Biography.com, “Allen Ginsberg was born on June 3, 1926, in Newark, New Jersey, and eventually became one of the founding fathers of the Beat Generation with his revolutionary poem ‘Howl.’ Ginsberg was a prolific writer who also championed gay rights and anti-war movements, protesting the Vietnam War and coining the phrase ‘Flower Power.’ Even with his countercultural background, he became recognized as one of American’s foremost writers and artistic icons. He died on April 5, 1997, at age 70.”
Critical Evaluation: Ginsberg writes his poetry in a stream of consciousness without rhyme or punctuation. He definitely expresses American mysticism in his work which is to say he sees the magic in dirty and rugged things. In the first part of his poem Howl, he continually mixes ideas of the natural and the man-made together. For example, he writes, “the starry dynamo in the machinery of night” (9). Ginsberg’s style of writing is often called jazzy or rhythmic. It fluctuates from long breath sentences, to short staccato sentences without any pattern. Another point about Ginsberg’s writing is that he uses anaphora frequently in his work which also affects the pacing of the poem.
Curriculum Ties: Poetry, Sexuality, First Amendment
Booktalk Ideas: Get into groups, read a stanza aloud, and interpret together. What about your stanza would cause controversy?
Challenge Issues: Sexuality, Drugs & Alcohol
Challenge Resources: Rationale for choosing this book (see “Why Did I Pick This”), Engage students and parents in discussions about intellectual freedom, ALA Library Bill of Rights,Challenge Resources from the American Library Association
Why Did I Pick This: I believe that teens should read poetry that challenges the traditional ideas of poetry. Ginsberg wrote about sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll without glorifying bad habits by simply arguing that all parts of life are beautiful and worth writing about. Teens will benefit from reading poems and learning about a poem/book that has caused so much controversy.
Ginsberg, A. (1955). Howl and Other Poems. San Francisco: City Lights Press.